30 January 2014

Do something that does not compute

I just came across these words by Wendell Berry and decided they were too good not to share:

      So, friends, every day do something
      that won't compute. Love the Lord.
      Love the world. Work for nothing.
      Take all that you have and be poor.
      Love someone who does not deserve it.

28 January 2014

Republic of Thieves: Review

Republic of Thieves is the long-awaited third volume of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. It has been years in the making because of the author’s personal problems, but it is very welcome now that it is here.

Republic begins with a prologue that puts the story in context by detailing Locke Lamora’s first encounter with the love of his life, Sabetha. It then jumps forward in time to a point shortly after the end of Red Seas Under Red Skies: Locke is dying of an illness concocted by a group of Bondsmagi he has antagonized. This gives another faction of Bondsmagi the opportunity to make him an offer he can’t refuse: his life as part payment for rigging an election.

The bulk of the story is essentially an account of Locke and Jean’s efforts to rig the election. However, Sabetha has been recruited by another faction to rig the election in their favour, so it becomes a tale of the difficult relationship between Locke and Sabetha interspersed with flashbacks to their time with the Gentleman Bastards.

In the end, Locke’s faction win the election, the Bondsmagi apparently vanish, and Locke and Sabetha learn something unpalatable about his background. In the wake of that revelation, Sabetha leaves. Locke and Jean are left penniless but alive.

Lynch has created a set of strong, likeable central characters. Locke and Jean are already familiar from the earlier novels, but this story develops their characters further. Locke is more vulnerable here than in earlier novels, and we are given fresh insights into Jean as he is forced to become Locke’s protector. And, of course, we are at last introduced to Sabetha who has been well foreshadowed in previous novels by Locke’s brooding over her absence. In the course of the story, we gradually discover that the hints in the earlier novels have more to do with Locke’s idealized vision of her than the reality.

The tone of Republic is reminiscent of the amorality of the recent grim dark tendency in fantasy. But this is leavened by touches of humour, thoroughly enjoyable prose, and Locke’s sense of fairness.

An election campaign is not the most obvious setting for an action-packed novel, but Lynch marries the (dodgy) politics and the action very successfully. As a result, the pacing of the novel is every bit as good as its predecessors making it very hard to put down.

Republic is the third volume of a projected series of seven, but there is no sign of the loss of direction that so often plagues mid-series books. Lynch has deftly avoided this by shifting the emphasis to Locke’s relationship with Sabetha. And he has dropped some tantalizing hints about what may be yet to come with the (not entirely convincing) escape of the Falconer – Locke’s enemy from the first volume – and the suggestion that there is something out there that the Bondsmagi are afraid of.

In summary, this was by far the best fantasy novel I read in 2013. Like its predecessors, it is essential reading for anyone who enjoys fantasy literature.

20 January 2014

Reading Augustine in 2014

Recently Collin Garbarino, a history professor from Houston Baptist University, had the bright idea of creating reading programme for Augustine’s City of God with a view to reading a couple of chapters a day. If you stick with it, you should get through the entire volume by the middle of December. He has set up a Facebook group for people who wish to read it with him and discuss any issues that arise. Fortunately for folk like me who keep well away from all things Facebook, David Reimer of Edinburgh University has now started a non-Facebook reading group using the same reading programme.

But why would anyone want to read City of God? According to Collin Garbarino:
Because it’s awesome. Augustine of Hippo started his magnum opus after Germans sacked the city of Rome in 410. Both pagan Romans and Christian Romans took the destruction of the city pretty hard, and both looked for meaning in the event. The pagans blamed the Christians, and many Christians couldn’t understand how this catastrophe could happen in a Christian empire. Augustine writes his book to put historical events in a theological perspective. City of God has everything—history, theology, philosophy, science. Augustine crams a lot of ancient learning into this one book. I like to think of the City of God as the capstone of the ancient world. It’s definitely worth reading.
My own answer would be that, quite apart from its importance for understanding Augustine and its more general theological importance, it is one of the seminal works in the philosophy of history. 

18 January 2014

And the winner is . . .

As long-time readers of this blog may recall, I have been looking for an alternative to my trusty old database program, Idealist, for the past several years. Well, I have finally decided to switch to ConnectedText. The latter is in many respects a much more powerful data management tool than Idealist (see e.g. Dr Andus's blogs on using it for qualitative data analysis). For me, the main advantages of CT are its support for Unicode, its ability to display rich text formatting (via Markdown), its support for LaTeX commands (which makes it possible to include equations in notes), and the fact that it is supported by a very active developer and an enthusiastic community of users. Most importantly, with a bit of tweaking, it is possible to make CT import Idealist records from one of Idealist's export formats and treat them as CT topics with the same name.

This doesn’t mean that Idealist will disappear from my laptop any time soon. I have far too much material already in Idealist (nearly 20,000 research notes and 8,500 bibliographic references), so the switch will be have to be gradual, with all new notes going straight to CT and material being imported from Idealist as and when I need it.

For the benefit of Idealist users who might be contemplating a similar move, my export/import procedure is as follows:
  1. In Idealist, create a hit list consisting of the records to be exported.
  2. Export the hit list to an Idealist Natural file (a plain text file with tags to indicate the record and field divisions).
  3. Edit the Idealist Natural file as necessary. The crucial piece of editing is to replace the tags for the record head and the first field of the record with something CT will recognize as a topic separator (I use . At each occurrence of the separator, CT will create a new topic with the contents of the original record’s first field as its title (which works for me as the first field in my Idealist records is always either a subject, a date, or a Harvard reference).
  4. Import into CT and tidy up as necessary.

01 January 2014

Pilgrim Theology

A review of Michael Horton’s Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Zondervan, 2013):

This recent book from the pen of Michael Horton is essentially an abridgement (by about 50 per cent) of his larger volume The Christian Faith aimed at a wider readership. I must confess that I was disappointed. My expectations had been raised by reading earlier works by Horton (particularly his For Calvinism) and particularly by the title, which reminded me of a passage in Jim Packer’s Knowing God and led me to hope that this systematic theology was actually geared to the daily pilgrimage that is the Christian life.

In fact, the book is a fairly conventionally structured overview of Christian doctrine from a Calvinist perspective. Two introductory chapters deal with knowing God and the doctrine of Scripture. These are followed by: God (2 chapters), creation and fall (2 chapters), God’s response to sin (3 chapters), salvation (5 chapters), sacraments and ecclesiology (3 chapters), and eschatology (2 chapters).

Two difficulties with this approach are worth noting: it seems to be comprehensive (it isn’t; for example, there is no treatment of the spiritual dimension of creation) and every one of the chapters could have been expanded into a book. The resulting breadth at the expense of depth inevitably paints theology in misleadingly black and white terms while at the same time lending the book an air of superficiality.

Worse than that, some of Horton’s arguments seem tendentious. Other reviewers have commented on his tendency to caricature those he disagrees with (e.g. Jim West has questioned his treatment of Zwingli). For me, this weakness was particularly apparent in his treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity where the so-called social (or, better, relational) model of the Trinity is dismissed as tritheism in a couple of sentences. In the course of this dismissal he makes (necessarily) highly selective use of quotes from J├╝rgen Moltmann, which is fair neither to Moltmann nor to the subject (Colin Gunton or Robert Jenson would make far better dialogue partners).

Having said that, this volume does have its uses. While it won’t replace my first choice for a one-volume introduction to Christian doctrine (Mike Higton’s Christian Doctrine), I would certainly recommend it to any evangelical who might otherwise be tempted to invest in Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine.